Have the NSA Leaks Become an Attack on All U.S. Espionage?

How you look at things.
Oct. 29 2013 1:16 PM

Whistle-Blower Creep

NSA muckrakers used to target domestic surveillance. Now they’re targeting U.S. espionage against foreign governments. What happened?

Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden
If you’re German, Mexican, or Brazilian, you can thank these guys for exposing surveillance of your country. But if you’re American, the equation has changed.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Reuters & via Getty Images.

You can also listen to William Saletan read this piece.

Five months ago, journalists working with Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, began to publish embarrassing stories about the NSA’s secret surveillance programs. Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and their colleagues based these stories on Snowden’s cache of classified documents. They exposed a spying apparatus that had succumbed to the temptation of unprecedented access to electronic communication. Eventually, President Obama acknowledged that the government’s reach had exceeded its judgment. “Just because we can get information,” said Obama, “doesn't necessarily always mean that we should.”

But that lesson doesn’t just apply to the government. It’s a weakness in all of us. We tend to exploit, and eventually abuse, power and information. Today, the United States faces worldwide outrage, frayed alliances, and economic threats not for spying on its own citizens, but for spying on other countries. Greenwald, Poitras, and their colleagues are digging deeper into Snowden’s trove of documents, exposing U.S. espionage against foreign leaders. What began as a crusade against unconstitutional surveillance within this country has degenerated into a campaign to expose all American spying.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Snowden says he began leaking documents because of the NSA’s warrantless domestic wiretapping. In an introductory video making his case to the public, he told Poitras, “The primary disclosures are the fact that the NSA doesn’t limit itself to foreign intelligence. It collects all communications that transit the United States.” To Greenwald, he added, “Originally we saw that focus very narrowly tailored as foreign intelligence gathered overseas. Now increasingly we see that it's happening domestically.”

Greenwald, too, emphasized domestic surveillance. A few days after publishing the initial documents, he told ABC News, “As an American citizen, I have every right, and even the obligation as a journalist, to tell my fellow citizens and our readers what it is that the government is doing that they don't want people in the United States to know about.” He told CNN, “The ability to surveil your own citizens is an incredibly significant and menacing power. It is one of the first powers that every single tyranny obtains for itself.” On MSNBC, he argued, “What we disclosed was of great public interest, of great importance in a democracy: that the U.S. government is building this massive spying apparatus aimed at its own population.” On Meet the Press, he added, “The only people who have learned anything are the American people, who have learned the spying apparatus is directed at them.”

Soon, however, Snowden began to reveal U.S. targets overseas. He had gone to Hong Kong, hoping China would resist his extradition. On June 13, the South China Morning Post reported that according to documents shown to its reporters by Snowden, “the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009,” including “Chinese University and public officials.” Snowden told the newspaper his goal was “to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European, or Asian.” He expressed hope that “world governments will refuse to be bullied by the United States.”

On June 22, Greenwald defended Snowden against charges that he had, in effect, spied against the U.S. Greenwald observed that the Espionage Act applied only to disclosures of classified information "with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States.” He argued that Snowden was “devoted to informing the American people” that their government was “secretly constructing a mass and often illegal and unconstitutional surveillance apparatus aimed at American citizens.” According to Greenwald, the people whom U.S. leaders were “seeking to keep ignorant with selective and excessive leak prosecutions are not The Terrorists or The Chinese Communists. It's the American people.”

But Greenwald and Poitras were no longer focused on informing Americans. They were focused on informing other countries about U.S. surveillance abroad. On June 29, Poitras and three colleagues, citing Snowden’s documents, published an article in Der Spiegel under the headline, “Attacks from America: NSA Spied on European Union Offices.” A companion article warned Germans of American predation: “Partner and Target: NSA Snoops on 500 Million German Data Connections.” The Guardian disclosed that a document in Snowden’s collection listed 38 foreign embassies and missions as surveillance targets, including the embassies of France, Italy, Greece, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, India, and Turkey. Both the Guardian and Der Spiegel spelled out the surveillance devices and methods.

A week later, Greenwald co-authored a report in Brazil exposing NSA surveillance in that country. “The privacy rights of Americans aren't the only ones that matter,” he argued. He accused the U.S. of targeting “all of the world's citizens,” thereby acquiring “boundless power over those to whom it has no accountability.” The original rationale for exposing U.S. espionage—subversion of American democracy—had given way to a fantasy of global democracy, in which all espionage was illegitimate, since leaders of the perpetrator country were unelected by the people of the target country.

Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras haven’t divulged any surveillance explicitly confined to military targets or terrorists. But they’ve reported NSA operations against the president of Brazil, the president of Mexico, the president of Russia, French diplomats, Indian diplomats, and dozens of unnamed “world leaders.” Their articles are often published in the targeted countries and timed to cause maximum disruption to U.S. relations with those countries.

If you’re German, Mexican, or Brazilian, you can thank these journalists for exposing surveillance of your country. But if you’re American, the equation has changed. The NSA leaks are no longer about your privacy. They’re about alerting the world to U.S. espionage against other governments, most of whom are simultaneously spying on us. Snowden’s collaborators are publishing these secrets because, like the NSA, they’re in the thrall of unprecedented access to information. But just because they can use it all doesn’t mean they should.



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